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Business Ethics

Law and Ethics

Differences between Law and Ethics

Law and ethics are different, largely because law imposes sanctions and ethics imposes other consequences for unethical behavior.

Ethics is the study of good and bad conduct and examines how people should behave. Ethics is about actions and decisions that shape a person's own moral code. When making a decision, an individual consults their own ethical guidelines created from their moral values. Examples of moral values include honesty, responsibility, fairness, courage, trust, loyalty, forgiveness, and generosity. The individual decides what is right or wrong based on their ethical guidelines and applies these guidelines to make the decision. There are also many official codes of ethics for various organizations and industries.

There is no authoritative source to ensure that an individual abides by their ethics. Although the concept of ethics is abstract, or not concrete, many industries and professions write down their own ethics rules. Ethics have a universal application and can be applied to any situation or location. Unethical behavior does not necessarily result in punishment, but it can result in adverse consequences. For example, someone who engages in unethical behavior may be socially ostracized.

In contrast, law dictates how people must behave. Law is a system composed of rules that regulates the actions of people. Based upon social morals and ethics, the government creates laws, which are embodied and published in written form. Law is enforced by those acting on the government's behalf, who impose penalties when a law is violated.

Generally, law reflects society's basic ethics rules. For example, most people would agree that homicide is ethically wrong. Homicide is also illegal, which is due in large part to ethical considerations. This demonstrates how ethical considerations guide the creation of laws. Laws may allow behavior that some people feel is ethically wrong, and they may criminalize acts that some people feel are ethically right. For example, the recreational use of marijuana is legal in some states. However, some people may believe that the use of this drug is ethically wrong. Immigration is another concept that provokes various responses. Many states have strict laws against illegal immigrants arriving and working in the U.S. Nonetheless, some people may believe that allowing these individuals to pursue a better life is morally right.

Laws are created with the intent to provide consistency, enforce certain types of behavior that a government believes benefits society, and protect all people. Laws also have jurisdictional constraints, which means that different laws apply in different cities, states, and countries. Courts judge law violations according to written standards. Law violations often result in punishment—which may be minimal, such as a fine, or more serious, such as incarceration or death. Law and ethics usually dictate similar acts and do not contradict each other. Despite their intricate relationship, law and ethics are both necessary to keep society stable.

Laws versus Ethics

Law and ethics differ in many ways, but law is generally derived from social ethics. Both law and ethics are necessary for a stable and functioning society.

Theories of Ethics

The main theories of ethics include relativism, idealism, utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Kohlberg's stages of individual moral reasoning.

Ethical theories reflect differing views of the world. Relativism is the belief that there are no absolute truths and that a decision may be right even if it does not match one's own ethical standards. There are several types of relativism, but cultural and individual relativism are the most prominent. For cultural relativists, what is right or wrong depends on each society's norms and practices. Individual relativists believe that people create their own ethical rules. Idealism is the practice of forming or pursuing systems of thought that are based on ideals and spiritual values. Utilitarianism states that the best course of action is the one that maximizes overall happiness and minimizes overall pain, thereby maximizing utility and producing the greatest overall benefit. Kantianism views an action as rightful if it fulfills the duty of goodwill, focusing on a person's underlying motivation for an action instead of the consequences of taking the action. For example, suppose Mary drops her wallet as she exits her car. Joe notices, picks up the wallet, and sees that there is $50 in it. Although he could benefit from the money, Joe returns the wallet because he feels he has a duty to return Mary's property. Under Kantianism, Joe's decision was motivated by goodwill because Joe did not personally gain from it.

In the mid-20th century, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg conducted studies of parallel relativism, idealism, utilitarianism, and Kantianism. In his philosophy he proposed levels of individual moral development that contain six distinct stages. In Stage 1 the individual is eager to obey rules to avoid punishment. Stage 2 is individualism and exchange, in which the individual recognizes that others also have needs and may try to meet the needs of others. At Stage 3 the individual wants approval from others and emphasizes good behavior. Stage 4 is law and order, in which the individual blindly accepts society's rules and conventions because they want to be part of society. Most people remain at Stage 4 because what is considered "moral" is usually dictated by an external authority—for example, law enforcement. Stage 5 is social contract, in which an individual learns that others have different values and that structured rules are needed. Stage 6 is called the universal ethical principles of conscience. It involves the individual creating their own moral principles and obeying these in place of the law.

Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg believed that moral reasoning has six distinct developmental stages. Most people stay at Stage 4, which emphasizes law and order.